Thursday, March 26, 2015

$25 Million for Stem Cell Research Plus Sharp Criticism of California Stem Cell Board

The California stem cell agency today approved $25.2 million for preclinical research aimed at speeding development of therapies for afflictions that include arthritis, Alzheimer's and “bubble boy” syndrome.

The action came during an agency governing board session that was marked by sharp criticism from an executive with a La Jolla firm associated with one of the rejected grant applicants, Jill Helms of Stanford. The executive, Sanford Madigan of Ankasa Regenerative Therapeutics, told the board he was "disturbed by board members not willing to do their jobs."

Sanford Madigan, LinkedIn photo
Several board members said they were offended by Madigan's remarks, although he later apologized. He appeared to be irritated by the reluctance of the board to override its reviewers. Five board members subsequently abstained from voting to overturn staff and reviewer rejection of Helms' application. The motion that would have funded her proposal failed on a vote of 5-1-5.

The public flare-up involving the board and a member of the public was unusual, although comments such as Madigan's are sometimes heard in private.

His remarks came at the end of a discussion about the weaknesses of the agency's closed-door review process. The discussion involved other applications in addition to Helms' proposal. Randy Mills, president of the agency, acknowledged the review process was "sub-optimal" and was being replaced by new procedures he has dubbed CIRM 2.0.

Ankasa was created by Avalon Ventures, which is raising $16 million to help commercialize Helm's work to develop a stem cell therapy to improve skeletal healing of elderly people.

The governing board of the agency handed out awards to seven scientists with the goal of moving their research closer to federal approval for a start of a clinical trial. The board approved applications from two researchers who made special appeals to the board after reviewers and staff nixed their proposals.

Prior to the vote on her application, Helms was told that she could revise her $7 million application and submit it for later consideration. She said the soonest that would occur would be in about 10 months, given the agency's timetable. By that time, she said the research team would be disbanded through lack of funding and the effort would "disintegrate." 

CIRM has already put $7 million into Helms' research. She has been something of a bright star for the agency, which has featured her on its Web site and asked her to appear on its panels.

The rejection of the Helms proposal highlighted some of the vagaries of the agency's longstanding review process.  She received an average scientific score  of 72 which knocked her out of the funding category(tier one). However, her median score was 75, a figure that two reviewer-approved grants received. What skewed the average figure was a low score of 45. No other grant in the top 10 received that a ranking that low. Eight reviewers recommended funding the proposal, Four did not with three recommending it be placed in "tier two," a grey area for applications.

No reviewers were listed as having conflicts of interest on the Helms proposal. However, their finanicial and professional interests are not disclosed to the public. Nor are they identified to the public.

On another proposal, John Cashman, CEO of Human BioMolecular Research Institute of San Diego, asked for a re-review of his firm's application for a treatment involving spinal fusion. He said that his firm has worked with CIRM for several years to make changes that the agency had requested. Nonetheless, he said reviewers do not seem to agree.  Cashman said,
"Certainly the system is broken."
The board did not act on Cashman's request for a re-review.

Here is the roll call vote on the Helms' application: Yes -- David Higgins, Steve Juelsgaard, Kathy LaPorte, Lauren Miller, Art Torres. No -- Jonathan Thomas. Abstain -- Francisco Prieto, Robert Quint, Al Rowlett, Jeff Sheehy, Diane Winokur.

Summaries of the reviews of the winning applications can be found on this 90-page document.

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this item did not contain the two paragraphs that deal with the vagaries of the grant review process and conflicts of interest.) 
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